Over the past week, Hong Kong residents have been visiting the city’s top university to bid goodbye to the most prominent monument on Chinese soil dedicated to victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Many walked around the podium examining the 8-meter tall sculpture from different angles. Parents brought their little children. Artists spent hours making sketches and an oil painting of the monument. A former student, wearing a graduation gown, posed for photos in front of it.
A woman stood on one side of it for 20 minutes, staring into the 50 twisted, afflicted faces depicted in the monument that represent the unknown number of civilians killed for advocating a democratic China more than three decades ago.
“I’m not feeling sad because of June 4,” the 21-year-old recent graduate said, referring to the date of the military crackdown in 1989. Holding a laptop in one arm, she took out a tissue to wipe away tears as she spoke.
“I’m feeling sad because we no longer have the space to express our opinions. This is a symbol of what’s happening in Hong Kong.” As with others who talked to VICE World News at the monument, she declined to give her name for fear of retaliation from the authorities.
The presence of this monument, known as the Pillar of Shame, has for decades provided a strong testimony to the freedoms the former British colony has enjoyed after it was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.
While the history of the 1989 pro-democracy movement is a taboo subject in the rest of China, here in Hong Kong, a harrowing, eight-meter tall monument stands in the middle of its most prestigious university, reminding the students, teachers, local visitors, and Chinese tourists of a past the Communist Party is trying hard to erase from people’s memories.
Now, the statue—or the fate of it—may become the symbol of something else entirely. The University of Hong Kong has demanded a disintegrating pro-democracy group remove the sculpture by Wednesday. The university said it was still seeking legal advice now that the deadline has passed. The creator, Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, told VICE World News he had hired a lawyer to help make sure the sculpture would be kept intact and shipped out of Hong Kong safely.
In any case, it appears the statue’s days at the university, and in Hong Kong, are numbered.
The monument was first erected in Hong Kong in 1997 to mark the eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, when government troops rolled into central Beijing and killed an estimated hundreds of demonstrators and other civilians. In 1998, students held a poll to have the statue permanently placed at the University of Hong Kong. In 2008, activists painted the sculpture orange as part of the creator’s “The Color Orange” campaign to protest China’s human rights violations ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
The commemoration of the Tiananmen crackdown was far from the most radical idea in Hong Kong’s political landscape in the years leading up to 2019, when young people were increasingly embracing separatism. But the monument was significant in its presence inside an elite university funded by the government, showing how political dissent could co-exist with the establishment in the Asian financial center, unlike in mainland China.
The sculpture has in recent years been sitting right outside of a busy campus cafeteria. Anyone who enters the university through the subway exit, regardless of their political affiliation, would find it hard to ignore the tortured faces as well as the history embedded in them.
“The old cannot kill the young forever,” said the English words engraved in red on the base.
“I think it will come back one day, though I don’t know if we will see it in our lifetime.”
A 30-year-old woman from northern China, who was temporarily working in Hong Kong, said she felt touched when she saw the sculpture on a visit to the city years ago. She was saddened by the imminent removal and dropped by the campus to pay a final tribute on Tuesday.
“Hong Kong is becoming more like the mainland. People in both places are increasingly facing the same adversity,” she said. “I think it will come back one day, though I don’t know if we will see it in our lifetime.”
Beijing has taken drastic measures to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement following the massive anti-government unrest in 2019. Opposition leaders were jailed. A popular newspaper critical of Beijing was shut down. Pro-democracy organizations are dissolving under pressure. And the Hong Kong police have banned the annual Tiananmen anniversary candlelight vigils for two years in a row, citing COVID-19 contagion risks.
Increasingly, Hong Kong’s democracy advocates are finding themselves struggling to preserve even the most moderate expressions of dissent.
A 20-year-old woman, who works as a chef, paid her first visit to the sculpture on Thursday, after learning it would be removed. Although she was familiar with images of the sculpture, seeing it in person gave her goosebumps, she said.
She joined the protest movement in the summer of 2019. When she was marching in the crowds along with hundreds of thousands of fellow Hong Kongers, she was hopeful the city would get closer to becoming a democracy.
But standing next to a Tiananmen monument that would likely disappear from Hong Kong, the chef said she had lost hope of that.
“This sculpture is absolutely not just about the University of Hong Kong. Instead, it was an honor for the university to have it here,” she said. “It represents a country’s history.”
Hong Kong universities have a long history of cultivating political activists. Sun Yat-sun, hailed as the father of modern China for helping overthrow the Qing dynasty, is one of the most prominent alumni of the University of Hong Kong. He credited his years in the city for giving him revolutionary ideas.
As the Chinese leadership was extending its influence over Hong Kong following the 1997 handover, universities had continued providing space for free political discussion. Students and professors have played key roles in Hong Kong’s own democracy movement by organizing protests, holding political discussions, and erecting pro-democracy installations like the Pillar of Shame on campus.
The campuses are now undergoing profound changes as authorities try to eliminate what they see as threats to China’s national security. Students faced charges for participating in the 2019 protests. The decades-old Democracy Walls, pinboards where students could post criticisms of the Communist Party, are now deserted at many universities. Student unions have disbanded or stopped functioning after they were criticized by authorities for promoting ideas that endanger national security.
At the same time, universities are introducing compulsory national security curricula and promoting collaborations with mainland institutions. In an interview with the state-run Xinhua news agency published this week, the University of Hong Kong’s president Zhang Xiang said the school was obliged to contribute to China’s economic and technological developments.
When asked about the Tiananmen monument on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s governor Carrie Lam, who is the chancellor of public universities, said she expected the school to handle the matter according to its own policies, adding that artistic and academic freedoms are protected under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Young people standing in front of the soon-to-disappear sculpture did not feel reassured.
“A lot of things that were previously unimaginable have happened since 2019,” said a 20-year-old student who was visiting the monument on Tuesday. He said he had been participating in an annual ritual of cleaning the sculpture ahead of the Tiananmen crackdown anniversary. “This one [the removal] is also just a matter of time.”
His friend, a 16-year-old secondary school student in uniform, came to see the monument in person for the first time. To him, the monument warned against the grim consequences of confronting the ruling Communist Party, the student said.
Both of them said they planned to emigrate with their families in a few years.
The 21-year-old graduate who was staring at the sculpture said she had not decided where she would go, and the silent tribute gave her an opportunity to think about the future—hers and her home city’s.
She recalled leading a tour for younger students who aspired to attend the University of Hong Kong a few years ago. When they walked past the Pillar of Shame, she said, she proudly assured a shocked mainland Chinese teenager that public commemoration of Tiananmen victims was tolerated here.
She had a feeling the sculpture would not be there forever, but she never thought the end would come so soon. “I just want to take another look at this,” she said. “When we come back in the future, we will know what used to be here.”
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